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Md. must take cautious approach in latest billion-dollar stadium plan for Orioles, Ravens

A wide angle view captures an empty Oriole Park at Camden Yards during the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees baseball game, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

With all due respect, these are not great times for fully trusting the owners of Major League Baseball and National Football League franchises.

There’s been a two-month owner lockout in baseball, mostly over player compensation issues.

But it’s football that’s gotten the real bloody nose with the league’s chronic failure to hire Black coaches (or have a single Black owner) and the claims made by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores in a class action discrimination lawsuit filed Feb. 1 that, among other things, he was directed by the team’s owner to lose games to secure a top draft pick.

So let’s just say these aren’t great times for trusting billionaire owners to be fair in matters of pay, equity or even the outcomes of games.

Yet, it’s in this environment that word came forth last week that the Maryland Stadium Authority is seeking approval from the Maryland General Assembly to borrow up to $1.2 billion to upgrade M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the respective homes of the Baltimore Ravens and Baltimore Orioles.

Lawmakers might be forgiven for at least suffering a bit of sticker shock. It seems like just yesterday that Oriole Park was built for $110 million and M&T for $220 million. But it wasn’t yesterday. Oriole Park opened 30 years ago this June, and M&T was finished in 1998.

The price of a major sports stadium has increased quite markedly. The newest NFL stadiums, SoFi Stadium (home of the Los Angeles Rams, Chargers and the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 13) and Allegiant Stadium (home of the Los Vegas Raiders) cost $5.5 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively. Both are indoor and have some degree of private financing, incidentally, so the comparison is not perfect, but one gets the picture: Standards and costs have changed.

Economic assets: That makes $1.2 billion to renovate two facilities in Baltimore a whole lot more appealing than spending as much or more on a new one. And given the importance both these franchises have for Baltimore, a city that could use all the economic assets it can get these days, that price tag might be considered a steal if it results in long-term leases.

The Orioles claim to have had a $10 billion economic impact on the region attracting 72 million fans to games since their ballpark opened, along with millions more people going to concerts and other events at the site helping anchor the west side of the downtown. And that’s not even counting on the more subtle benefit of being a major league city with a ballpark that was considered groundbreaking at the time, its old-time eccentricity distinguishing it from those cookie-cutter, bland suburban monoliths that came before.

M&T Bank Stadium is the home of the Baltimore Ravens.

And, most important, this would not be a taxpayer bailout. The teams would be expected to sign lease agreements with payments (along with greater lottery revenue) paying off the bonds over time. No tax dollars are involved.

In other words, it would be something very much like what state lawmakers have approved before. This would simply give the Stadium Authority the flexibility to upgrade existing facilities so that — and let’s throw out the worst-case scenario — Baltimore does not lose these teams it worked so hard to both attract and retain years ago.

How would it be spent? There’s just one small but significant question: How exactly would this $1.2 billion be spent?

The long but vague answer is that it’s going to modernize the facilities. That would likely include creating more social spaces, sports betting parlors and perhaps some form of premium seating, at least at M&T. We don’t know really know.

As The Sun’s Jeff Barker reported last Thursday, neither team has gone so far as to produce specific plans. Obviously, they are hoping to deal exclusively with the Maryland Stadium Authority and, perhaps, just want to know their budget before committing to a proposal.

Throwing a flag: Alas, that’s where we must throw a flag. As near-spotless a record as the Maryland Stadium Authority may have to date in its management of sports facilities and other public venues, there is something about taking elected officials out of the real decision making and leaving the matter entirely in the hands of a public corporation not directly answerable to voters that gives one pause.

Can lawmakers in the next 60 days get a clear enough idea of how $1.2 billion would be spent to sign off? Perhaps but it’s not there right now.

We would urge the Ravens and Orioles front offices to provide more specific guidance or be willing to defer the matter for a year. In concept, we fully support renovating the stadiums.

It’s an absolute bargain compared to multibillion-dollar facilities springing up elsewhere.

Keeping the Orioles and Ravens in Baltimore? The highest of priorities.

It’s a shame the city’s convention center and arena didn’t get this level of reinvestment years ago. But $1.2 billion is still $1.2 billion.

Keep Marylanders in the loop: We expect lawmakers to keep Marylanders (you know, the regular folk who don’t allegedly get offered $100,000 to throw NFL games) in the loop.

Much more detail is needed before lawmakers can get to yes.